“God made Adam to hold his hand,
but Adam left God for Mom’s pie tin,
and Adam sold me an apple pie.”
This is a Sunday-drive story about pie…apple pie.
Tins of flaky pie dough, sugar, spices and, yes, apples. Exactly Julian apples, as in Julian, Calif., 19th-century gold boomtown, weekend destination and decades-old mountain retreat for the metropolis of San Diego.
Apple pie is appreciated here, almost slathered over, in a way nigh to the Gilroy garlic cult, or the gustatory reverence conferred upon clam chowder in New England. In Julian, you can wait on line to have pie and coffee, you can be served pie at a table, or you can buy a whole pie through a window. This ain’t no Baker’s Square Frequent Pier Club, no. These are world-class, heavyweight pies, crumbly, autumn delights that people and pets will drive long hours and many miles to sample.
Crazed and hungry, they make the harvest pilgrimage for these apples, and these people all want pie…pie, pie, pie. They come in regiment numbers, hungry for apple-crazy pie. Pack trains wend up the mountain for pie-ferrying Japanese tourists, newlyweds en Español, San Diego bikers, northern snowbirds, Methodists and, today, me.
Sunday, 10 a.m. High-altitude fishbone clouds mark the first day of October, a week before the harvest moon. I had been introverted the night before, shuttered by the sheltered violence and fascinated dread of the city. That was yesterday. This morning I’m about eating pie. Apple pie.
The four distinct seasons of Julian’s arboreal dell are approximately one travel mug of coffee uphill from San Diego’s spotless, eternal sunshine. Driving to Julian is not treacherous, unless Ramona’s minor Oktoberfest, tractor trailers of hay and roadside pumpkin stands fuzzle with your shizzle.
Apples were first cultivated as agriculture before the Romans, but I wasn’t there then. I arrive in Julian and park sideways next to a candy-apple-red ’57 Chevy on a hill too steep for even a soapbox derby, and the Wolfmobile groans laterally when it realizes it is parked.
You can pick your own apples or buy them by the bushel. You can pay 51 cents to have a penny flattened and embossed with a blue-ribbon apple. You can buy a postcard depicting a wheelbarrow full of pumpkin-sized apples. The Old Julian Bookhouse displays plank-sized books on, what else, apples. I half expect to see a quilt made from apple skins with Elvis’ face on it at the gas station. These people use apples the way the Sioux used buffalo. If I lived here, I would open The Pie Hole and sell crap there.
Apples and their subsequent pies are metaphors, bringing purpose and pride to this place. Apple Junction Real Estate, Candied Apple Pastry Company, Pie Town Gear (of course, why didn’t I think of that) and Apple Alley. The poetically named Cabbages and Kings Gift Shop just needs to get the hell out. This is Pie Town, everything apple here except the towheaded Martin-Paltrow child.
Sour cream apple pie, apple raisin walnut strudel, caramel apples, apple muffins, jams and jellies. Apple honey, apple soap, apple butter, dried apple rings and, of course, bitchin’ cider.
I hear some leathered biker yell, “I don’t even like apple pie!”
I’ll leave that one alone. I should carve out his tongue and give it to the mayor.
After a filling lunch at Romano’s, which explicitly does not sell apple pie, I make my way over to Town Hall and ask the gold-miner who is keeping the front steps from flying away his opinion on where to find the town’s best apple pie. He dead-eyes me. I feel invisible.
“It’s all the same pie,” he flies in my face.
He may as well have added, “Duh!” Was this greenhorn hustling me, pulling my lariat?
I am not deflated. Upon reflection his words are almost prophetic. “One love, one pie,” Bono sings. I get it now-any pie here is equally beautiful and deserving. Just the fact that I am tossing back apple pie, anyone’s apple pie while I’m here, transforms me.
When I am through transcending its metaphysical grandeur, I come upon a row of benches outside Mom’s Pie House on Main Street, where a grip of folks are shoveling it in. I step into line feeling part of something larger, a whole greater than the sum of its parts. This is better than a hot dog at the ballgame. Tomorrow I will be farting sweet apple breezes.
I enter Mom’s in a line that stretches out the door. The smell overwhelms me. I giggle suddenly for no reason, then I begin to weep apple-flavored tears. There must be more than 100 pies cooling or ready to bake on racks near the ovens. I swat at my face thinking a fly has landed on my chin, but it’s only drool.
“I’m here to eat pie, apple pie,” I tell register man Adam.
“OK,” he says.
Mom’s offers many varieties of the straight-edge American apple pie, and I break with purity to sit with my piece of cherry… apple… crumb. Adam even stuck a fork in and got it started for me. I look down at my pie, the anticipation gnawing inside me. I stop breathing. I know desire. I am Isaac Newton at the Last Supper. I am the serpent tempting Eve in the Garden. I am Johnny Cougar All-American Appleseed, walkin’ down the lane.
I finish my first piece then go back for another. It slides down easier than the first. I belch loudly, palpating my esophagus to be sure it’s all down, while overhearing a woman from Washington State, the king-hell capitol of apples:
“Good heavens, this is good,” she says.
The seal of approval-she knows what’s what.
My receipt reads “It’s been a slice,” which just might get you a punch in the nose in a different part of the country, but not here in Pie Town.
As I leave, I pass a dethroned and skeletal apple core on a cold, stone wall, alone and waiting for the flies to finish it off. It is the symbol of my day. Wisdom, myth and name gnawed down to the core, and this core is my innocence devoured.
I only wish losing my virginity had been this joyous.
Before you stop for pie, take a hike in Laguna or Cuyamaca, and please taste some local Nouveau at Menghini Winery, which used to be an apple orchard (you thought you were through hearing about apples) and order the chicken marsala at Romano’s Dodge House, even though they refuse to make apple pie. The best apple pie is arguably at Mom’s, but, well, it’s all the same pie-duh!
This story first appeared in San Diego City Beat…